Monday, October 24, 2016

Fried pumpkin & scallion flatbreads

The good news keeps on coming. This week, All Under Heaven was included in Amazon’s 100 Books for a Lifetime of Cooking and Drinking. I mean, I look at all of my heroes on that list – Julia Child, Fannie Farmer, Escoffier - and wonder how I managed to crash that particular party. I’m still reeling.

Speaking of heroes, many of my favorite living ones are going to be at the SF Ferry Building next month as part of the LDEI Literary Feast. Look at this list: Diana Kennedy, Dorie Greenspan, Joyce Goldstein, Paula Wolfert, Georgeanne Brennan, Mariela Spieler.... I snuck into that wingding, too, so please stop by my table if you can and nosh on some sample munchies from All Under Heaven.

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It’s the time of year when everything seems to be made out of pumpkin, even beer or tea. Now, in cases like these, I’m of the opinion that these are not really given a squashy boost, but rather have cinnamon or nutmeg in there to suggest autumn and the holidays. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I really like the taste of good squash.

And that is why I am giving you genuine pumpkin here, which turns these breads into lovely golden rounds that are moist and yet flaky, but with a subtle squashy flavor. In fact, you can use any type of hard squash here, like acorn or butternut, or even sneak in mashed sweet potatoes, if you prefer.

Baked acorn squash
Like zucchini bread, the pumpkin is here mainly to bump up the moistness, color, and nutrition of this dish, rather than serve as an assertive seasoning. In fact, some squashes like acorn are downright subtle in color and flavor, but are good in their own way. If you want more of a pumpkin-y statement, use canned pumpkin. 

The only thing you need to be careful of is not using anything that is too moist, as then you’ll have to use too much flour, which will then turn all the ratios into a mess. Canned pumpkin is good here, too, but be really sure that you’re not using pumpkin pie filling, which already has sugar and spices added.

Once you get this recipe down, you should make it your own. Consider some whole-wheat flour for part of the white, toasted sesame oil or sesame paste for the filling, perhaps ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns instead of the black pepper... really, the possibilities are endless.

Welcome the upcoming holidays with a Chinese twist on old favorites, like this.
Layers can be seen in the flatbreads

Fried pumpkin and green onion flatbreads
Nánguā cōngyóubĭng 南瓜蔥油餅
Makes 4 flatbreads and serves 4 to 6

Around 6 ounces / 180 g (¾ packed cup) cooked, mashed pumpkin (see headnotes)
2⅓ cups / 375 g regular Chinese flour (or 1⅔ cups / 250 g all purpose flour plus ⅔ cup / 90 g pastry flour), plus just a little extra for kneading
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 to 4 tablespoons / around 50 cc warm water
1 teaspoon oil of any kind to grease the bowl

2 tablespoons / 30 ml peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped

Peanut or vegetable oil for frying

Fat flakes should form
1. Heat the mashed pumpkin until it is very hot to the touch (around 150°F / 65°C). Place it in a medium work bowl with the flour and sugar, and use chopsticks or a silicone spatula to stir them together to give you fat flakes, and add just enough warm water to form a soft dough. (The amount of water you end up using will depend upon how moist the pumpkin is.)

2. When the dough has cooled down to the point where it is easy to handle, turn the dough out on a very lightly floured board and knead it for about 5 minutes until it is smooth, adding a bit more flour as necessary. It should feel like an earlobe when it is ready. Clean out the bowl, wipe it clean, and rub the oil inside of the bowl with the oil and set the ball of dough in the bowl, then cover it with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for at least 45 minutes so that it is easy to roll out.
Sprinkle on the seasonings

3. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Form them into balls and work on one at a time, covering up the rest with that plastic wrap. Divide the salt, pepper, and green onions into 4 equal portions each.

4. Roll a ball out into a flattened strip that’s approximately 16 x 5 inches / 40 x 13 cm in size. Smear a quarter of the fat over the dough, and then sprinkle on a quarter of the salt, pepper, and green onions. Starting on a wide end, roll the dough fairly tightly into a fat rope, and then pull on it gently at each end to stretch it out a bit before coiling it around into a snail. Pinch the end into the edge of the bread. Cover the snail with a piece of plastic wrap to let it rest while you repeat this step with the other three balls of dough.

5. Now you can start to roll them out into discs. Roll each one out into a circle around 7 inches / 18 cm wide. You can freeze the discs at this point by laying them flat on a baking sheet covered with plastic wrap; store them in freezer bags and fry them directly from the freezer without defrosting.

Lovely bread snails
6. To fry the breads, set a flat frying pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, swirl in about 4 tablespoons / 60 ml oil. Slide one of the discs into the oil and immediately cover the pan, which will encourage steam to form and so give you a flaky bread, as well as cut down on the spatter. Turn the bread over when it is a light golden brown on the bottom, cover the pan again, and fry the other side. Remove the bread to a plate covered with a paper towel and cut it into wedges before serving. If you are not eating them immediately, keep the fried breads warm in an oven.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Literary Feast on November 13th! With some of my heroes!

In just a month, the San Francisco chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier will be hosting “A Literary Feast” – and you are invited! Mark your calendar for Sunday, November 13, from 3:00 to 6:00

This is going to be an extraordinary event, with some of the leading ladies in the culinary world on hand. 

Just think of it: Paula Wolfert, Dorie Greenspan, Joyce Goldstein, and Georgeanne Brennan, among many others, will be there. You will get to not only meet these authors, but also taste samples from their cookbooks and buy some of their works. 

Does life get any better? Probably not.

This is the first time the City’s LDEI has held such an event, and I’m delighted to say that not only will I get to go (to be honest, little could stop me), but I’ll even be offering samples of my own from All Under Heaven. I’m thinking Sea Moss Sandies, Candy Coated Almonds, and Fried Lotus Chips.

You can get a discount if you purchase the tickets in advance here, or you can buy them at the door. Proceeds from this event will go to the LDEI-SF Culinary Scholarship Fund, which aims to give a leg up to worthy female culinary students, and also to the Garden Project, another really great cause.

Bring a big bag for all those books, as well as a warm jacket in case the fog rolls in. Hope to see you there!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Interview on The Beijinger + some more good publishing news

Lots of great things have been happening with All Under Heaven and the Dim Sum Field Guide these past couple of weeks, so I thought I’d do something slightly different this week and give the usual highlights, as well as the start of a fun conversation I recently did with the online Chinese magazine, The Beijinger. Robynn Tindall asked some wonderful questions, which I’m delighted to share with you below.
First, though, a recap!

All Under Heaven was again featured in the New York Times as one of Fall 2016's best cookbooks, and this time the shout out came from Sam Sifton, so that is totally amazing. 

Diana Zheng is writing about the brilliant cuisines of northeastern Guangdong, where the port cities of Teochew (Chaozhou) and Swatow (Shantou) hold sway. She was kind enough to ask my opinion on things, and you can find them here inside of her find article, "Tracing the Teoswa," in The Cleaver Quarterly. 

If you haven't heard much about that region's foods, much less reveled in their deeply savory flavors and punchy seasonings, you are definitely missing out. A bunch of Chaozhou recipes can be found in All Under Heaven, but I can't wait for Diana's book Jia! (or, Eat!) sees the light of day. 

The "Breakfast Show" on KCRW's Good Food podcast is continuing to receive considerable attention, even though I am in there talking about dim sum. Thanks again to Evan Kleinman for being such a great interviewer!

And now, on to that review...

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I have been following food writer, scholar, and illustrator Carolyn Phillips' excellent blog "Madame Huang's Kitchen" for years so it was with much excitement that I learnt that she was publishing a book, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016). A comprehensive look at China's many fascinating regional cuisines, All Under Heaven is as much a personal memoir and academic work as it is a cookbook – those looking for step-by-step recipes and plenty of pictures to flick through may want to look elsewhere (the book is instead illustrated with Phillips' own drawings). However, for a compulsive collector and reader of cookbooks, this is the perfect in-depth work. 
Below, Phillips tells us about her culinary journey of discovery and offers some advice for budding food bloggers looking to make the leap from screen to page.  

For those of us reading in Beijing, All Under Heaven is available for purchase as a Kindle book from or to order from The Bookworm.

What first brought you to Taiwan/China?

What I told my mom was that I wanted to learn Mandarin, but I think I just wanted to eat and eat. I had learned Mandarin and Japanese in college, and of course was therefore virtually unintelligible in either language. I applied to both Taipei and Tokyo for language classes, found a last minute opening in Taipei, and the rest is history.

How did you become so interested in Chinese cuisine?

My first two years in Taiwan in the late 70s had me dining on all sorts of street foods from every part of China, as well as great home-cooked meals with my host family and lots of friends. My new Chinese husband then introduced me to an even broader variety of great cooking, and then when I worked as the main interpreter at the National History Museum and National Central Library for five years, this meant dining out many times a week at Taipei’s greatest restaurants. I really was in an amazing place at an amazing time, for many of China’s most renowned chefs had moved to Taiwan after 1949, and money started to flow into the island with the tech revolution, and so fabulous dining palaces were springing up all over with outstanding cooks at the helm.

As I ate my way across Taipei, I started to notice the differences between the many cuisines, and as I tried to get a handle on them, I started to read lots of books and even cook some of the foods I had eaten the previous week in an attempt to figure them out. I had always been told that there were eight great cuisines (Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan), but the more I ate, the more confused I became, because this seemed to be such a limited view of what China had to offer.

When we returned to the States, I continued to try to parse my way through these food traditions, and although I worked as a Mandarin court interpreter during the day, in the evenings I spent more and more time working on this puzzle. I finally quit my day job to focus my attention on the cuisines of China and become serious about writing a cookbook. I started with my blog, and this gradually morphed into All Under Heaven.

(Read more here on The Beijinger.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

A creamy, cold weather delight from South China

A wonderful surprise was in store for me a few evenings ago when I finally had time to catch up on my favorite podcasts, and lo and behold, there was All Under Heaven being featured and loved and totally understood. 

To top it off, I only discovered this spectacular review a month after it had been aired! (I still need to figure out how to Google myself without being weirded out by all the people who share my name but are simply the dearly departed or the recently arrested. Mine is one popular name, it turns out.) 

Anyway, a long time favorite cookbook reviewer, T. Susan Chang, started a new podcast last month called The Level Teaspoon, and my two books are featured in the very first episode! (The praise starts at the 5:00 mark, if you're in a hurry.) Subscribe to this free podcast while you're at it - you'll be doing yourself a favor if you love cookbooks as much as I do.

And you don't get to consider your bucket list fulfilled as a cookbook writer if you haven't yet been given the seal of approval by the esteemed cookbook site, Leite's Culinaria. Well, that just happened to yours truly, and All Under Heaven somehow made it to the top of their list of "Best Cookbooks September 2016." Call me stunned, thrilled, happy... All I know is that their wonderful reviewer, Melissa Maedgen, completely comprehended what I was trying to do, made a batch of recipes that worked for her (hallelujah!), and had all sorts of nice things to say. Thank you, Melissa!

The Wall Street Journal also quoted me this last Saturday in the well written and oh-so-timely article "Chinese Food in New Translations," which is celebrating the thoughtful and exciting exhibition "Sweet Sour Bitter Spicy" exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. The author of this article, Jamie Feldmar, studied in China, so her love for the foods of my adopted country echo throughout this article. Plus, she's a heck of a lot of fun to talk with when you're barreling on a train from New York to DC. 

Finally, you can find me jabbering away about dim sum this week with Evan Kleiman on her tasty and knowledgeable podcast "Good Food," which is on the public radio station KCRW out of Los Angeles. Now that is one GREAT interviewer. I was told I'd sound better than I ever had before, and since that has been proved to be true, I must owe it all to Evan and her talent crew. Thanks, Evan!

* * *

The autumnal equinox has passed and the northern half of the world is becoming chillier. And that’s just the way I like it, because it means I get to dine on the warming comfort foods of China. This country has a marvelous battalion of soups, stews, and braises that are specifically designed to warm your toes and make even the crankiest diner happy. And this is one of them. In fact, this dish is downright luxurious.

Traditionally, this cured duck casserole is just pieces of the cured bird simmered with taro and a bit of ginger. And it’s good that way, but not the kind of thing that keeps me up at night with anticipation. Some recipes suggest adding coconut milk, and that is what got my mind really revving, since coconut milk always equals comfort food in my book. It’s sort of like adding heavy cream or a rich béchamel sauce to a dish, but with a delightful tropical twist.

I then went a bit nuts and took this dish many steps further down the road to hedonism: There’s rice wine in there to vibrate against the cured duck, the green onions and ginger are toasted to make them nothing less than absolutely mellow, I fry the duck after simmering it to give the skin a lot more interest and flavor, and the tangle of golden ginger is reserved to act as a chewy foil for all the soft textures underneath it.

Fuzzy baby taro
But I also took a cue from Macau’s great chicken dishes and broiled the top of the braise, which supplies yet another layer of texture, since a skin forms on the top of this rich coconut sauce and turns a rather boring looking dish into something that is quite beautiful. Finally, it all got lavishly decorated with garnishes that turn this dish into a celebration.

Do note that the ratio of taro to duck is huge. That’s because the duck acts more as a seasoning here than as a regular meat. When it’s cured like this, the bird becomes intensely flavored – a lot like prosciutto – which then turns around and seasons everything in its path. The duck is also very salty, and that’s the reason why it needs that initial hot bath to wash off a good part of the cure and also plump up the flesh a bit.

You can find cured duck (làyā 臘鴨) in most Chinese grocery stores all year around, but it will be best from autumn through spring, when the turnover is much faster. Try to find ducks that are grown and cured in the States, rather than China. Since the duck is completely cured, the unopened packages will keep forever in the refrigerator.

Use whatever kind of taro you like and is available. Mature taro – which looks a bit like a football and is very heavy and starchy – will make the casserole creamier and have more of a tropical flavor. Young taro are more vegetal and juicier, and in their own way are just as fine here. So, go with what you like.

Those lovely, creamy insides
I suggest you get a good-sized amount of taro because you will probably be trimming off a good portion of the flesh in addition to the skin, since things like bruises will have to be cut away. When it comes to young taro, trim off anything that is not creamy white, and keep only the lavender parts of more mature taro. (Do note that some varieties of mature taro will come in different colors – if you get a particularly pale or deep-colored root, you will be able to easily figure out what parts are good and what parts should be 86’d.)

To select taro, first eyeball them. They should look plump all over. When you see shrinking around the base, that means they have been hanging around too long and will be dry, which in turn means that they will take forever to cook. Avoid any with mushy spots, as this indicates rot. They are quite hairy, so you will have to fondle them in the vegetable bin – try not to make a scene while doing this or frighten the children.

Lots of times the mature taro will be cut in half or pieces and wrapped in plastic. There’s nothing essentially wrong with these, but do realize that they probably had their rotted parts trimmed off and so should be checked over very carefully for signs of further damage or excessive age.

Keep your taro dry and chilled and wrapped up in a bag with a paper towel, for this will help prevent them from sprouting or decaying. Wear kitchen gloves when you start to peel them if you are allergic to their juices. (Mature taro is much more irritating to the skin than immature ones, for some reason.) 
Fry the duck & onions

Use a potato peeler to remove the skins and then carve off any less than perfect parts. They don’t have to be soaked in water like potatoes, and if you do lots at one time (highly recommended if you are a taro fanatic like me), freeze them in a single layer and then store them in a freezer bag; they do not have to be defrosted first for most dishes.

Cured duck and coconut casserole with taro
Yézhī lìyù làyā bào  椰汁荔芋臘鴨
Southern Guangxi and Guangdong
Serves 4

1 Cantonese-style cured duck leg
Boiling water, as needed
Around 1½ pounds / 700 g baby or mature taro
¼ cup / 60 ml toasted sesame oil
¼ cup / 30 g thinly julienned ginger
4 green onions, trimmed and cut into fourths
¼ cup / 30 ml mild rice wine (mijiu)
1 (13.5 ounce / 400 g) can whole fat coconut milk
Sea salt to taste
1 green onion, trimmed and finely shredded
¼ cup / 30 g unsweetened grated coconut, toasted

1. This is great the same day that you make it, but gets even better with a day or two of rest in the fridge. Use a heavy cleaver to whack the leg into pieces that are around 1 inch / 2 cm wide all around. Place them in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes to remove the extra salt. Drain the duck well in a colander set in the sink, and then pat it dry with a paper towel.

2. Peel the taro, and if you are using mature taro, be sure to wear gloves if you are allergic its raw juices. Rinse the peeled taro and cut the baby ones in half or quarters, while the mature taro should be shaped into cubes that are also around 1 inch / 2 cm all around.

Chewy fried ginger!
3. Set a wok over medium-high heat and pour in the sesame oil. Sprinkle in the julienned ginger and stir the ginger constantly to toast it to a golden brown, adjusting the heat as necessary. Remove the ginger to a small work bowl. Return the oil to high heat and slide in the duck and green onions. Fry them all over so that they too are a golden brown. Pour in the rice wine, coconut milk, and a can full of boiling water, and then add the taro. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer. Cook the duck uncovered until the taro is creamy, which may take from 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon the quality and age of the taro. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a bit more salt, if needed. At this point the sauce should have the consistency of heavy cream, so reduce it if necessary. The dish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point and refrigerated. Heat the dish through again before serving, of course.

4. Turn on your broiler. Scrape everything into a heatproof 4 cup / 1 liter casserole. Set it about 2 inches / 5 cm from the broiler. Keep a close eye on the dish, and remove it as soon as the top is covered with golden leopard spots. To serve, sprinkle on the green onions and then the coconut flakes and fried ginger. This is great with steamed rice of any kind plus a green vegetable stir-fried with little more than garlic and salt.